Voice

Buck up, Peter Feaver!!

Your humble blogger has  just completed writing a long essay on the 2012 candidates and their foreign policy views that will be coming out soon.  Readers will be shocked, shocked to learn that it's pretty scathing. 

I'm hardly the only person to make this point.  When Senator Lindsay Graham is castigating his fellow Republicans, you know there's a problem.  FP's own David Rothkopf thinks this is a harbinger of Obama winning re-election.  And now the New York Times' Michael Shear reports that the GOP presidential candidates' myriad foreign policy gaffes are starting to embarrass the Republicans' foreign policy wonks: 

[T]he embarrassing moments are piling up, and some veteran Republicans are beginning to wonder whether the cumulative effect weakens the party brand, especially in foreign policy and national security, where Republicans have typically dominated Democrats.

“It is an ‘Animal House.’ It’s a food fight,” said Kenneth Duberstein, a chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan. “Honestly, the Republican debates have become a reality show. People have to be perceived as being capable of governing this country, of being the leader of the free world.” ....

[S]ome veterans of past Republican administrations said the candidates’ national security stumbles could have a more lasting impact on how voters perceive the party in the future.

“This is the core of the Republican brand. You mess with it at your peril,” said Peter Feaver, a national security official under President George W. Bush. He compared the foreign policy flubs to reports about safety problems in Toyota vehicles.

“The whole reason you bought a Toyota was so that you didn’t have those problems,” he said. “It cuts directly to the essence of the brand. Republicans should be concerned about this.”

George W. Bush confronted some of the same concerns in his party during his 2000 campaign, especially after he was unable to name the leader of Chechnya, Taiwan, India or Pakistan. But Mr. Bush surrounded himself with veteran Republican foreign policy advisers who helped reassure the doubters.

Peter Wehner, a former speechwriter for Mr. Bush, said that “in the short run, you can do some damage to the so-called brand,” but he said long-term damage would happen only if the party’s presidential nominee made such mistakes.

“The key thing is the nominee,” Mr. Wehner said. “One worries, if you are a Republican, if you get too many statements like this.”

Mr. Wehner said many of the Republican candidates had demonstrated a “pride in ignorance and a lack of knowledge.” But he predicted that voters would not reward those kinds of appeals during the primaries and caucuses.

Peter is a good friend, and I don't like to see him this anguished in print, so let me say that for once I agree with Peter Wehner.  Six months from now, when we know who the GOP nominee will be, I suspect a lot of the ignorance on display right now will be forgotten. 

I say this because, oddly enough, even before a vote has been cast, the political ecosystem actually seems to be working.  Sure, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain have had their moments in the sun -- and then the media reported on them, and people actually listened to what they were saying.  At which point, they crashed and burned.  They didn't only crash and burn because of their foreign policy gaffes -- but I don't think they helped. 

I can understand if international observers look at what's been said and gasp in horror at the American process of selecting a major party nominee.  In the end, however, the difference between the system now and the system fifty years ago is that nowadays someone like Cain can enter the race.  Before, the barriers to entry would have been higher.  Now, the barriers to entry are low, but the crucible of the campaign is far more fierce.  So people like Cain or Bachmann can enter and then be destroyed. 

At this juncture, it looks like Mitt Romney is the most likely nominee, and he's also the candidate who's done the most heavy lifting in thinking about foreign policy.  There's a lot of stuff to criticize in his foreign policy views, to be sure -- but that's true of Barack Obama as well.  Romney does pass the test of someone whohas some background knowledge about the world, and someone who has actually bothered to think about the subject.  Post-primary, that will be the foreign policy brand of the GOP. 

[And if it's not Romney?--ed.  Then it's Newt Gingrich, who, again, has demonstrated a little knowledge about foreign affairs.  Throw in Rick Santorum and Jon Hunstman as wild card candidates yet to have their bubble.  Huntsman clearly knows foreign affairs, and that's also been Santorum's strength in the debates.] 

Don't worry, Peter -- the wheel is turning. 

Daniel W. Drezner

The new equation for overthrowing resource-rich dictators

The Washington Post's Liz Sly has been doing some excellent reporting on the ground in Syria, and her latest report suggests that the latest batch of sanctions are starting to hurt Syria badly: 

The dramatic decision by Arab states to turn against President Bashar al-Assad could further damage Syria’s economy at a time when it is already unraveling, posing perhaps a graver challenge to Assad’s survival than the country’s nearly-eight-month-old popular uprising, analysts say....

The extent of the damage is difficult to measure, and Syrian government officials say they don’t have indicators. But they do not play down the gravity of the situation.

Syrian Economy Minister Mohammad Nidal al-Shaar said at a conference last month that the economy is in a “state of emergency,” according to comments quoted by the Damascus-based Syria Report. In a recent interview in Damascus, Adib Mayalah, governor of the Central Bank of Syria, described the situation as “very serious” and ticked off the problems the economy is facing.

“Unemployment is rising, imports are falling, and government income is reduced,” he said. “In areas where there are protests, there is no economic activity — so people aren’t paying tax. Because they aren’t working, they are not repaying their loans — so the banks are in difficulty. And all this is weakening the economy.”

Merchants interviewed recently on the streets of Damascus report a 40 to 50 percent fall in business as consumers hoard cash and cease spending on all but the most essential items. Tourism has skidded to a halt, representing a loss of $2 billion a month to an economy worth $59 billion last year, Mayalah said.

“The whole system has been shrinking — and very fast,” said Rateb Shallah, a prominent Damascus businessman. “The sanctions are squeezing us, and it is definitely affecting us quite a bit.

To what extent the downturn is due to the sanctions isn’t clear, however.

Until now, only the United States, the European Union, Canada and Japan have imposed sanctions on Syria, with relatively limited measures mostly targeting individuals and financial services. The most serious measure, a European embargo on oil purchases imposed in August, goes into effect only on Tuesday because Italy sought to ensure that its existing contracts were honored.

But the experience of the oil embargo illustrates the broader crisis of confidence confronting Syria. European nations, which account for a vast majority of Syrian oil exports, immediately halted their purchases, even though they were not required to do so for three more months. And oil pumped since then has gone unsold, despite Syria’s boasts that it would easily find other customers. Syria has curtailed its oil production by more than 25 percent, Mayalah said (emphasis added).

The EU sanctions are clearly having an effect, and they were just ratcheted up a notch.  What's particularly interesting, according to CNN's Ivan Watson, is that Turkey might be weighing in:

Turkey threatened to cut off supplies of electricity to its neighbor Syria Tuesday, as the Damascus regime found itself under growing pressure from Arab, Turkish, European and North American governments for its ongoing lethal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators.

"We are supplying them (Syria) with electricity at the moment. If they stay on this course, we may be forced to re-examine all of these decisions," Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said Tuesday, according to Turkey's semi-official Anatolian Agency....

Observers warn the protest movement in Syria, which struggled peacefully for months, is growing increasingly "weaponized" as more and more Syrian soldiers desert from the armed forces and join the opposition.

There's just a whiff of the Ivory Coast in how things are playing out right now.  Effective sanctions + regional cooperation + weaponization of the opposition = eventual dictator downfall.  It's not as neat and tidy as that equation, of course, but you get my drift. 

There's an interesting irony here.  Historically, the leaders of resource-rich economies have had greater leeway make mischief and resist waves of democratization.  In the current climate, it would seem that these are the very economies most vulnerable to active economic pressure. 

Obviously I'm not expecting an oil embrago on Iran anytime soon -- there are costs to sanctioning a major oil exporter.  Still,  these events are no doubt disturbing in Tehran and elsewhere. 

What do you think?  Is Assad doomed?